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When Does Stress Become Toxic?

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Stress is any stimulation, strain, or pressure. Not all stress is bad. In fact, short episodes of moderate stress can be good for us. Stress can literally turn us on with an adrenaline rush that helps us rise to the challenge. When we are challenged to stretch our skills just enough, we find ourselves in the “peak performance zone.” In such situations, we’re often “in the flow” and “in the moment” – fully present and absorbed by where we are and what we’re doing. That’s when time flies. Worries and distractions disappear. We’re all in.

You’ve had those moments – at work, in athletic competitions or artistic performances, at home, in your personal relationships and in sweet parenting moments where you know you met your child’s needs, and they know it too.

Our nervous systems are wired to activate our bodies and minds with bursts of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which help regulate:

  • our muscle tension and relaxation,
  • our heart rate and respiration,
  • our digestive and immune systems,
  • as well as our capacities to focus on what’s important

With moderate or occasional stressful challenges, our nervous system maintains a healthy balance of turning on and off the neurochemicals we need to fight or flee, to tend and befriend, to rest and repair.

It’s an exquisite system that helps us not just survive life challenges, but thrive in the face of a wide variety of circumstances. It’s why human beings have adapted so well to so many different environments over the ages. It’s how any one person can adapt to the many challenges of one lifetime.

But what happens when that system gets out of balance? What happens when daily stressors never seem to turn off?

Chronic, Toxic Stress

With chronic, repetitive exposure to too many demands – or even rare occurrences of demands that are too intense – the intricate circuits of our nervous system start to break down. The stress hormones don’t fluctuate in a healthy rhythm of coming and going, exciting and calming us. Our heart rate that needs to be able to quickly increase and decrease in response to fluctuating demands loses its capacity to vary in this healthy way. Our ability to thinking flexibly and creatively and critically gets overtaxed and ultimately dulled. In short, our minds and bodies start breaking down. Mental and physical illnesses increase. Joy and energy decrease. We get stuck in the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode way too much.

That’s when I see bright kids and well-meaning parents struggling with attention and organization deficits, anxiety and depression, anger and aggression. That’s when I see headaches and heartaches more than any of us wants to see in our children. That’s when we see digestion and sleep problems, school performance and behavior problems, family and peer relationship problems. That’s when we see kids with self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-regulation problems.

That’s when stress becomes toxic.

It is no badge of honor to be too busy. Yet that’s what everyone says nowadays when you ask how things are going – “busy, too busy.” And if you ask almost anyone how they’re feeling, the most frequent answer you’ll get is “tired, too tired.”

How do we stop this insanity? How do we go on a life-saving mission of stress de-tox for our selves and our children?

Parenting Stress De-Tox

Here are 3 beginning steps. Repeat several times daily, as needed, for the rest of your life! And teach your child to practice these steps too. If you want help, contact me.

STEP 1 – Pause

Just for a moment. Allow yourself to become still and quiet. Let your body become still, sitting in an fairly upright position, alert yet relaxed, feet squarely on the floor, hands resting softly in your lap. Try it, now, for less than a minute, and just see what you notice. See what you notice going on around you, and within you, in this moment.

You may notice that your body becomes calm and relaxed. Or maybe it’s fidgety and jittery. You may notice sounds around you, some that you hadn’t noticed before, coming and going. You may notice aches or tensions in your body. You may notice racing or distracting thoughts arising, also coming and going. You may notice feeling intrigued or bored. You may not notice much of anything. All good to know.

When we pause to notice what is here, now, we are beginning the very foundation of mindfulness practice. We are reconnecting with our higher brain functions and resetting our nervous systems. In the face on ongoing chronic stress, this is a good thing. This is also something we can do anytime, any place, whenever we choose, whenever we need.

STEP 2 – Breathe

For another minute – or maybe just 3 simple breaths – notice your breathing. There’s no need to try to breathe a certain way, and for goodness sakes don’t try to relax! (Really, you’ll probably just tense up again.) Just notice your breath coming and going, in and out. Notice it softly passing in and out, through your nose and chest, your belling gently rising and falling. Breathing in, breathing out. In, out. Here, now.

STEP 3 – Proceed

Now that you are more fully present, you can make a conscious choice for how to respond to your current situation, rather than reacting mindlessly, emotionally, or impulsively. You can make thoughtful choices for how you want to be, in this moment – more or less miserable, more or less agitated, more or less scattered, more or less helpful to your child? You can’t control all the stress in your life, but you can control how you relate to those life circumstances. This can go a long way towards detoxifying the stress in your life.

Pause. Breath. Proceed.

Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, mindfulness teacher, loving husband and dad. He invites you to join in an ongoing conversation that seeks to restore sanity to humanity – one child at a time. Join us at www.AMindfulVillage.com.


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